Tuesday, 27 July 2010
LUCK BE A LADY By James C Clar
Luck Be A Lady
The usually crowded streets were all but deserted. It was nearly 3:30 A.M. after all. The only people out wandering were hookers after a few last tricks and late-night revelers on their way to Zippys, Jack in the Box or the Wailana Coffee House in the hopes that something solid might stave off their inevitable hangovers.
It was also hot, unusually so. The palm trees were still, the trade winds had died, and the Kona winds were blowing. Instead of a cooling breeze from the northeast, kama’aina and visitors alike were forced to endure a southeasterly flow of sticky air that rendered conditions more like summer in South Florida than the paradise that was Hawaii.
Not even the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles or the presence of uniformed officers crawling around the Coral Seas Apartment building on Nahua Street near Ala Wai Boulevard like ants on a picnic basket had attracted much attention. In fact, HPD detectives Jake Higa and Ray Kanahele pulled up in front virtually unnoticed. They flashed their badges and were, wordlessly, admitted through the cordon and into the lobby.
It was an older building from the first boom back in the late 60’s and early 70’s and probably once possessed real charm. Now “faded,” “quaint” or even “retro” might be among the most flattering adjectives that could be used to describe it. If the place had air conditioning, it certainly wasn’t having any effect. In fact, if possible, it seemed warmer and more humid inside than out.
Kanahele mopped his massive brow with a sun-faded bandana. Higa, seemingly unaffected by the weather, looked down at the floor. The body lay in the proverbial pool of blood that looked like nothing so much as spilled motor oil. The pitted and scarred tiles underneath, once green and black, had turned the more expected color of rust only where the blood had dried in and between the cracks.
Higa wished it were possible to decipher the meaning of those stains the way archeologists did the ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs at Puako. Maybe then he could fathom the psychological calculus of the tragedy that had apparently taken place here. In the absence of the arcane, however, what remained was old-fashioned police work.
Ninety minutes or so later, with dawn just barely raising its sleepy face from the craggy pillow of Diamond Head, the two detectives sat opposite a man who appeared to be in his early sixties. He had short-cropped, steel gray hair, innumerable military tattoos, and a physique that bespoke, even at his age, hours in the gym.
Arrayed on surprisingly comfortable rattan chairs around a coffee table covered with out-of-date magazines and faded tourist brochures, all three men studiously avoided the spot ten or fifteen feet away near the door where, until recently, the victim had lain. Gone now too were the City & County of Honolulu Medical Examiner and the scene-of-crime techs who had snapped photos, collected physical evidence, measured distances and shot video with clinical detachment.
“So, ah, Mr. Ryder,” the wiry Higa began. “You knew the victim. Is that correct?”
Ryder shifted his weight in his chair. He tapped out a cigarette and lit it with an ancient Zippo. Higa and Kanahele exchanged glances. There were “The Coral Seas is a Smoke-Free Facility” placards in plain view.
“Yeah. His name is, I mean was, Williams. But you know that. We served together.”
“You were in the military, Mr. Ryder?” Kanahele asked. The tattoos made it seem obvious but, in Hawaii, that could be as much about art, a cultural thing, as it was about anything else.
“Sure, the Marines. I served three tours in ‘Nam, ’66, ’67 and ’68. I was a lieutenant. I had R & R on Oahu and really dug the place. I moved over here in, like, 1985. Worked at Matson Shipping.”
Higa looked down at his notebook. “From what we’ve been able to learn, Williams lived in Syracuse, New York. Any idea what he was doing here in Hawaii?”
“Fucked if I know! Guess he was looking for a change of scenery. It’s cold as hell in upstate New York this time of year. Anyhow, he called me, what, maybe a week ago. Must have gotten my number out of the book. Wanted to get together and have a beer. Shoot the shit, talk about ‘the day’. You know the drill.”
“So,” Higa commented offhandedly as he watched a perfectly formed smoke ring rise toward the ceiling where it caught in the draft from a paddle fan and dissipated, “did you … get together with him I mean?”
“Tonight. Had a few drinks over at a little joint called Spinners around the corner off Liliuokalani Avenue. I left him there, I don’t know, around midnight. Maybe 2:15 or so, he shows up here. I buzzed him up. What else was I supposed to do?”
Kanahele pulled his sweaty shirt from his back, looked over at his partner and leaned forward in his chair.
“OK, Mr. Ryder. We’ll come back to all of that in just a minute,” the Hawaiian detective promised. “All the evidence we’ve seen so far points to the fact that the late Mr. Williams shot himself. The thing is, the ‘moke offed himself with your gun. What we’re wondering is how he got a hold of your weapon. Can you help us out with that?”
“He took it from my apartment. Like I said, he came up around 2:15. Dude left about a half hour later, say 2:45. Few minutes or so after that, I noticed that my gun was gone. I keep it on a table near the door. By the time I got down here to the lobby, he was lying over there where you found him. Never even heard the shot.”
“I have to say, Lieutenant Ryder,” Higa observed with a carefully calculated edge, “you seem pretty blasé about this. I mean, an old buddy from the Corps looks you up. You go out for a few drinks. Later that same night he steals your gun and commits suicide in the lobby of your building. And I’m not even talking about the fact that you kept an apparently loaded gun out in the open. You can understand that we’re a little confused here.”
Ryder lit another cigarette from the one that still smoldered in his hand. He blew a few more smoke rings before responding. Higa and Kanahele knew the time had come to wait him out.
“Listen, as far as the gun is concerned, old habits die hard, know what I mean? Hey, of all people, you guys ought to know what’s happening to the neighborhood around here. Any asshole tries to break into my place is gonna’ pay for it. I have all the necessary paperwork.”
“We’re checking into that right now” Kanahele offered.
“Sure. I bet you are. Here’s the deal. Williams was hardly a buddy of mine. We served together. That’s it.”
“But he looked you up, wanted to meet. Enlighten us, Mr. Ryder.” Higa urged. “What did he want, what did you two talk about?”
“What did he want? Absolution. Forgiveness, maybe. I don’t know. I’m no priest.”
“What did Williams need to be forgiven for?”
“Our squad had this dude. He was a little ‘dago named DeFalco. He was like our lucky charm, you know? Every squad has one. He’s the guy who steps on a mine that turns out to be a dud. He takes a round to the helmet and lives to show off the damage with thyroid eyes and an ‘ah shucks’. DeFalco was ours.”
“I was Army. An MP,” Higa commented. “I never saw combat but I know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah. You have ‘the look’. So, anyhow. DeFalco always took the point. It was un-fucking believable. Guy had a sixth sense or something. Always seemed to know what was around the corner, in the bushes or behind the rocks up ahead. Our losses were way down with him up front. Way down.”
“What’s this got to do with Williams?” Kanahele asked, a trace of exasperation leaking into his voice. Outside, the sounds of early morning delivery trucks mingled with the bird-like chirping of Tagalog as Filipino housekeepers and maintenance staff reported to work at the hotels, condos and apartments that thronged the closely packed network of streets that ran between Kalakaua Avenue and Ala Wai Boulevard.
“Williams was a ‘newbie’. Just posted to the 7th Squad, Delta Company. That was us. So, OK. We were on patrol in the Highlands about eight ‘klicks from the borders with Laos and Cambodia. You guys know anything about that part of the ‘Nam? Well, let me tell you, spooky and surreal don’t even begin to describe it. The heat and humidity during the daytime was unbearable. Makes this stretch we’re going through here now feel like a cold snap.”
Kanahele looked up. As far as he was concerned, a ‘cold snap’ sounded great.
“Then there were the areas of mist that would appear just above the floor of the jungle, anytime, anyplace. All the trails in the area were mined or booby-trapped plus the whole motherfucking area was crawling with VC snipers and ambush parties. Everybody was on edge.”
“Like I said, DeFalco was our lucky charm. But he was quirky, man. Quirky. We were all used to it, but not Williams. See every time we stopped, DeFalco would take this plastic bag out of his pack and sniff what was inside.”
“What’d he have in there,” Kanahele asked, “coke, powdered amphetamine, killer weed?”
“Shit, no. It was a cookie. I kid you not. It was a friggin’ cookie. See, DeFalco’s mom had sent him a box. Chocolate chip loaded with walnuts. They were righteous. He shared ‘em with us. He saved one and carried it with him whenever he was on patrol. It was like his own good luck charm.”
“OK,” Kanahele interrupted. “This DeFalco rested up and recharged by sniffing an old chocolate chip cookie? That’s, maybe, the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Let me tell you detective. I saw a whole lot that was crazier. And, listen, the fear out there was paralyzing. You’d latch onto anything … anything … that got you through another patrol. No lie, though, it was when DeFalco started carrying that cookie around that our luck changed for the better. But Williams, he agreed with you. He was all over DeFalco. Wouldn’t let it go. I talked to him two, maybe three times about it. Still wouldn’t quit. It was starting to get to everyone.”
“So Williams and DeFalco didn’t hit it off,” Jake Higa spoke quietly. “I’m still not clear on how all of that bears on what happened here tonight.”
Ryder shrugged his shoulders and smiled wryly. “I’m just telling a story here, that’s all.” A pile of cigarette butts grew exponentially on the table in front of him like a bouquet of blighted flowers.
“Two days into our patrol, we were humping across a small clearing of elephant grass. Defalco walked point. All of a sudden, automatic fire came from the tree line off to our right. Defalco was hit and went down. The rest of us kissed dirt and returned fire. Next thing you know, the sons-of-bitches started shelling the clearing. It was chaos. We couldn’t get a fix on their artillery to radio for air cover. I figured our only chance was to flush ‘em out and take cover in the trees ourselves.”
For the first time, Higa and Kanahele noticed sweat breaking out on Ryder’s brow. His eyes had a far away look. Both men knew instinctively not to interrupt him.
“We made it into the trees. Cost me three men plus two wounded. Eventually, the VC lost interest and the shelling stopped. Ask me what we were supposed to be doing there in the first place? It was just one little ‘who the fuck knows’ in a much bigger ‘who the fuck knows’. We retrieved DeFalco’s body, went through his belongs, pulled his tags out of his boot. The bag with his cookie was still there, but it was filled with something that looked and smelled like dried monkey shit. We all knew. Had to be Williams.”
“Later, during dust-off, Williams was the last one on the ‘Huey. I had him stay back and cover us while we got everyone aboard. We were just starting to take off when he grabbed hold and hoisted himself up. I was tempted to kick the bastard in the teeth and watch his sorry ass fall back into the elephant grass. They were shelling again by then.”
“But you didn’t,” Higa said.
“No. He was a son-of-a-bitch, but he was one of mine.”
“I guess we know now what you two talked about tonight don’t we?” Kanahele added. “Maybe you even offered to give your old war buddy a way out, huh? A chance to make amends after all these years.”
“You’re giving me way too much credit detective. We were just two vets, hanging out, having a couple of beers. Besides, in this heat, people do all kinds of crazy shit. Listen, I’ll tell you one thing, though. Luck might be a lady, but Karma’s a bitch with a long memory and a bad attitude.”
Higa stood and Kanahele followed suit.
“I probably don’t have to tell you this Lieutenant Ryder,” Higa said as he moved toward the door. “But don’t take any vacations for awhile. We’ll be in touch.”
“Were would I go, detective? This is the Land of Aloha, right?”
Sitting behind the wheel of their car, the sun cascading now down over the Manoa Valley to the northeast and turning the inky waters of the Ala Wai dull silver, Higa turned toward his husky partner.
“The heat may make people do crazy things, Ray, but Ryder is morally responsible for what happened here tonight. We both know he talked Williams into it. He egged him on, drove him to it somehow. The best we’ll be able to do legally, though, is a weapons charge. He’ll get fined, maybe loose his permit. That’s it. A guy like that, he’ll have another piece in a couple of days.”
“You’re right,” the stocky Hawaiian replied as he rolled down his window. “But I’m sure as shit not gonna’ loose any sleep over it. They both seem like scumbags to me, apart from their service to our country you understand. Hear that?”
The big man inclined his head toward the open window of the car.
“The palms are singing again. The trades are back. Maybe the weather’s finally broken and things will get back to normal … or what passes for ‘normal’ … around here. Anyhow, you know what they say, right?”
“Please, Ray, it’s been a long night,” Higa pleaded. “Don’t … “
With a twinkle in his eye, Ray Kanahele couldn’t stop himself. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.”
James C. Clar has published short fiction in print as well as on the Internet. He has worked in a wide a variety of genres, crime/noir, fantasy, SF, horror and mainstream. Of late, however, HPD detectives Higa and Kanahele have been taking up a good deal of his time. The exotic and multicultral setting of Waikiki -- where natural beauty and the more sordid and tawdry often exist side-by-side -- continues to be a source of fascination and inspiration.